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The unorthodox orthodox

Alex Klaushofer
Sunday July 21, 2002
The Observer

They strictly follow the tenets of the Torah. They also burn Israeli flags. Alex Klaushofer meets the members of Neturei Karta in north London - the Jewish world's most outspoken critics of Zionism.


It's a sunny Saturday in May, and Trafalgar Square is rammed. Thousands of people have marched from Hyde Park Corner to show their support for the Palestinians. For months, the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza have been living a shrunken existence, confined to their homes by ever-tightening blockades and curfews imposed by the Israeli army. Ten days earlier, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis in a snooker club near Tel Aviv. But despite these signs that the Middle East conflict is worse than ever, the protestors are in festive mood, waving the demonstration's official placards which call for an end to the Israeli occupation. The wall in front of the National Gallery blazes with the red, green and black of a giant Palestinian flag.

From the base of Nelson's Column, one speaker after another rallies the crowd. There's maverick MPs George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn, the Palestinian delegate Afif Safieh and Palestinian QC Michel Massih and Iqbal Sacranie from the Muslim Council of Great Britain. They call on Sharon, Bush and Blair to support the Palestinian cause, and urge the protestors to boycott Israeli goods. Beside them on the platform sit four Orthodox Jews in long black coats, wide-brimmed hats and ringlets. They strike a surreal note.

The group is part of Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist sect of the Orthodox Jewish community which is passionately opposed to the state of Israel and its government's treatment of the Palestinian population. Since they are forbidden to use transport on the Sabbath, a few of its younger, fitter members have made the two-hour journey from Stamford Hill on foot in their Saturday dress of prayer shawls and fur-rimmed hats. Despite their prominent position in full view of the thousands below, they seem perfectly composed, holding a Palestinian flag and a placard bearing the slogan 'End the occupation'. They don't want to speak, so one of the organisers reads a statement on their behalf. It condemns, in no uncertain terms, the 'atrocities committed by the Zionist regime', lamenting 'the plight of the Palestinian people'.

Two teenage boys from the Young Muslim Organisation UK stare at the little group with curiosity, nodding and smiling at the explanation given by a nearby adult. As the speeches end, the Jewish group is engulfed by young Muslims wanting to know more about them. Not all the conversation is political. An Asian youth says he has come down from Yorkshire. 'Yes, I know replies one of the Neturei Karta, with polite interest.

It is the largest event that 35-year-old Alter Hochhauser, one of the four, has ever attended. He breaks into a smile when he recalls afterwards, in slightly halting English, what making such a public statement meant to him. 'I was feeling very good. I always thought the Arab people have nothing against the Jews, only Zionism. The Zionist propaganda is so strong, that the Arabs would kill the Jewish people, but I knew it was not true. Now I saw it with my own eyes, how happy they were with us.' His friend Elhanan Beck is also heartened by the impact of their presence. 'I think many people changed their mind about Jewish people when they saw us,' he says.

Coming out is a big step for the members of a self-sufficient, Yiddish-speaking and deeply religious community who normally have little contact with the outside world. But with the Middle East at boiling point, the Neturei Karta, whose position is well known within the Orthodox community, feel a new obligation to take their views to a wider public. Their open protest carries risks, since many Jews regard their condemnation of Israel as a betrayal. One member of the group, Abraham Grohman, was assaulted when he attended a counter-demonstration at Britain's largest ever pro-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square in May. Another, who cannot be named, is receiving police protection following a spate of death threats. Beck, 36, maintains that fear of the consequences will not prevent him from following the dictates of his religious education. But he adds, with less certainty: 'At the moment it's not so serious. I can't say what I will do, but I hope even if it's serious I will do what I need to do.'

Rabbi Israel Domb ushers me into the dining room of his terraced house in Stamford Hill. With a lace-covered table that fills the room and glass-panelled sideboard, we could almost be in Eastern Europe in the 50s. Now 86, Domb shuffles slightly in the slippers that, with his long, black satin coat, make up his housewear. But he exudes the twin qualities of self-containedness and benevolence that mark those who believe they've arrived at a place of existential and spiritual certainty.

Bizarrely, the entire proceedings are filmed by a young man neither of us was expecting. Wanting to capture the discourse of one of their elders, and aware of the increasing need for publicity material, Neturei Karta in New York have commissioned videos of most of my interviews.

Domb's long life testifies to the experience of 20th-century Jewry. He came to England from Poland in 1939, and lost his mother and sisters in the Holocaust. But it has also been a life lived countercurrent: he visited the newly founded state of Israel in the 50s and started speaking and writing against Zionism, which made him unpopular with the Orthodox community. The publication of The Transformation , the definitive exposition of the Neturei Karta worldview, confirmed his status as one of the movement's main spiritual leaders. Bound in dark red leather, and the length of a short novel, its register is hard to place, with its blend of theological assertion and historical-political commentary written in a style dating from decades ago.

He insists that the politicised turn of his life grew out of his upbringing in a deeply religious family. He tells me how, when the Nazis came, a Polish teacher offered to hide his two blonde sisters. 'My mother said, "I appreciate your kindness. But I would rather they should die as Jews than be brought up as non-Jews." I come from a family of very strong convictions. Neturei Karta is nothing new.'

Domb claims that while most modern Jews have departed from true Judaism, the Neturei Karta - which means 'guardians of the holy city' in Aramaic - are the minority charged with keeping the faith. The movement was established in Jerusalem in the 30s. Its supporters, living in the Holy Land since the 18th century, had always opposed a Jewish state and were concerned about the growing pressure to establish a Jewish homeland. Domb insists that its tenets go back to the origins of Jewish identity.

'Neturei Karta is not an idea, it's not a new trend, it's not a party with a programme,' he tells me. 'It is the authentic Jewishness of the Jewish people.' At its theological heart lies the belief that the Jews have been exiled for their sins and are destined to suffer, a fate which will be redeemed only when divine intervention, with the coming of the Messiah, changes the world order. In the meantime, Jews must remain stateless, living under the rule of whichever country hosts them. Zionism, as the desire for a sovereign state, represents a blasphemous rejection of God's will. 'An earthly solution for the Jewish people is not possible, because we are not destined for any earthly happiness. The Jewish people should come to their senses and see that the Zionist state is one big misfortune,' says Domb.

In conversation, Domb frequently distinguishes the religious level - the messianism that forbids the Jews political intervention - from what he calls the 'mundane' or worldly perspective. When he talks on this second level, his observations are sharpened with a campaigning edge. 'When the Zionists speak about peace, they want peace, but what it means is a peaceful occupation,' he says. But he also has a Middle-European, black sense of humour, chuckling grimly to himself as he invokes the worst excesses of human behaviour: 'Were they invited to the West Bank? Were they invited to Ramallah and Jenin? Were they invited to throw out from their homes around 600,000 Arabs?'

The political solution Domb advocates is, ironically, more radical than the PLO's, which recognised Israel's right to exist in 1988. He has no hope that this will happen, but he thinks the Israelis should renounce their claims to land within the 1948 borders and make reparations to the Palestinians. With the state of Israel dismantled, Jews could remain in the Holy Land, but live under Palestinian rule. But ultimately, he stresses, Neturei Karta's objection to Israel rests on theological rather than political grounds. 'The very existence of the Jewish state is diametrically opposed to Judaism,' he says. 'But as it happens, the Arabs have suffered, and it is our duty to say to them: "It is morally wrong, it is illegal from the worldly point of view, and we are not part of it. So don't blame all the Jewish people for the sufferings which you have had."'

The acknowledgement of this injustice, he says, imposes an obligation on the Neturei Karta to actively seek out Palestinians to make clear their position. Speaking slowly and with emphasis, he declares: 'It's an encouraging matter that young people come out, speak against Zionism. But they also have to guard against speaking nonsense and overdoing it.'

Unsurprisingly, Neturei Karta's brand of overt protest finds them little favour with the leaders of Britain's Jewry. The Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, speaking at the Zionist Federation's Israel Independence Day rally at Wembley, where one of the Neturei Karta set alight an Israeli flag, condemned their stance as 'unforgivable'. Neville Nagler, director general of the Board of the Deputies of British Jews, dismisses them as 'a fringe organisation, off the wall'. He claims that their 'vicious hostility to Israel, their willingness to desecrate the Sabbath to show up at demonstrations' isolates them even from the Orthodox community among whom they live. Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of Britain's Reform Synagogues, says that Neturei's religiously grounded anti-Zionism is untenable nowadays: 'The intellectual and theological battle was lost the best part of a century ago. It's no longer relevant or meaningful. For the vast majority of Jews, the existence of the state of Israel is not negotiable.' It's a paradoxical attitude - dismissing the group as irrelevant while evincing palpable hostility - which is perhaps a measure of how far the Neturei Karta touches on the central, raw nerve of the Middle East conflict: Israel's right to exist.

The Neturei Karta in New York have long experience in handling public protest and controversy. Based in the city's Monsey area, the bigger, more established group has been organising anti-Zionist protests since 1948, some of which, they say, have attracted up to 30,000 Orthodox Jews. Their leader, Rabbi Moshe Beck, visiting his sons in London and speaking through a Yiddish interpreter, tells me that the heightened tension of the past year has caused some supporters to fall off and provoked threats against him and other activists. But many remain steadfast. 'Those that do it are prepared for whatever consequences,' he insists, adding: 'All our actions are no more or less than proclaiming the truth - it's not a political idea.'

Beck, a frail-looking man of 68 who does not once make eye contact during our hour-long meeting, seems an unlikely character to be at the frontline of so much conflict. Born in Hungary, he emigrated to Israel soon after its establishment. What he saw there - the emergence of a modern, secular society, combined with the government's harsh treatment of the Palestinians - horrified him, clashing as it did with the inner religious life he was pur suing through study and reflection. Then he met Neturei Karta's most respected leader, Amram Blau, and became active in the Jerusalem-based movement. But in 1973, feeling it was no longer right to live in Israel, he and his family moved to New York.

In Israel, Neturei Karta's position is very different. Part of the ultra-Orthodox community in the Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem, the group denies the legitimacy of the government, refusing to pay taxes and avoiding military conscription into the Israeli Defence Forces. In the 60s and 70s they fought an often violent campaign for observing the Sabbath, finally persuading the authorities to close some of Jerusalem's streets on the holy day.

Its leader and self-styled foreign minister, Rabbi Moshe Hirsh, who considers himself a Palestinian Jew, ran a high-profile campaign in the 80s to be appointed as Neturei Karta's representative in the PLO. In 1994, Arafat endorsed his position as the Palestinian National Authority's Minister for Jewish Affairs but, as a non-Arabic speaker and unable to deal directly with Israeli representatives because of Neturei Karta's refusal to recognise the Israeli government, Hirsh has had a more advisory than ministerial role in the Palestinian adminis tration. He has used his position as a platform for campaigning, in 2000 urging Arafat to unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state.

But for the most part, Neturei Karta's activities are fairly low key. Hirsh, who claims 10,000 supporters in Jerusalem, says that the group is so well established that taking to the streets is felt to be unnecessary. 'We don't recognise the government; everyone knows that. We don't see the need,' he says.

But Professor Menachem Friedman, an expert on the ultra Orthodox at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, says that recently tensions within the anti-Zionist Orthodox movement about making political alliances with the Palestinians have reduced Neturei Karta's numbers. 'Neturei Karta is a very small group in Israel,' he says. 'Because of the Palestinian terror, it is very difficult to find support. Even so, they are very tolerated, and that's part of the bizarre world of Jerusalem now.'

The secular culture of British activism means that even Palestinian supporters here are cautious about the unlikely alliance. 'We couldn't agree with lots of what they say because it's all based on religious beliefs, but it's very useful to show that there is a breadth of support for the Palestinian people,' says Carole Regan, chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which organised May's demonstration in Trafalgar Square.

But the hundreds of emails recently sent to Neturei Karta from all over the world suggest that their stand resonates with a wider, less-aligned audience. 'May Allah bless you! I sat down and cried with happiness,' writes one correspondent after discovering them. 'Thank you, O people of the book,' says another. 'Are you for real?' asks a third.

It's hard to marry the hostility that the Neturei Karta elicits from mainstream British Jewry with the gentle people I meet face to face. Some of them wear an expression of innocence seen so little these days that it's hard to place. It's a sign of how well the Orthodox Jewish community to which the Neturei Karta belong has managed to maintain a life apart. A life handed down from their ancestors in 18th-century Poland that centres on religious observance. A mesh of beliefs and practices governs every aspect of life for the 20,000-strong community in Stamford Hill, making for a strong identity and cohesive society. But fearing the dangers of anti-Semitism and the contaminating influence of modernity, it is also a community conscious of its own fragility and guards its privacy fiercely. Beyond the dealings with neighbours and business associates, there is no contact with the outside world.

There are few women on the streets of Stamford Hill, but the men of the community, with their formal black coats and their hats covered neatly in white plastic against the rain, are everywhere. The high street has an old-fashioned look: apart from a Boots, it has escaped the chain-store invasion. Shops such an ironmongers provide obviously useful services. And while there are kosher food stores and bakeries, it is hard to find a cafe or restaurant.

'This is all unneeded,' explains Menachem Blum, a friend of the group who had joined the pro-Palestinian demonstration in Trafalgar Square. 'Suppose someone wants to relax: you just sit at home with a cup of tea or coffee, perhaps with a friend. But definitely not with a woman, unless it is his own family.' Sitting around the big table in one of their homes, the young men of Neturei Karta are at pains to assure me that they're not missing out on anything when their only entertainment is religious festivals and celebrations of life events such as marriage. 'The gentiles need something to lift their spirits, so they do a lot of these festivals,' says Beck. 'In the Jewish religion, because everything is so spiritual, even though you have celebrations, they are only a way of continuing this spiritual thing. Religion is our life force, our happiness. Everything else is secondary.'

A lifelong commitment to religious learning governs the lives of all Orthodox men. Many opt to work part-time in order to devote part of the day to studying the body of religious laws that make up the Torah, often working in groups or pairs at the synagogue. Some, if they can afford it, study full-time, aiming for a rabbinical post. The community prizes the life of learning, offering financial support and rewarding advanced students with the honorary title of rabbi. Often, the learned repay the community by offering its boys religious tuition.

It's a way of life that brings few material rewards, as witnessed by the high levels of deprivation in the Stamford Hill community. There is little pursuit of career: many jobs are administrative or in small businesses, requiring few professional qualifications.

The spiritual life is not an option for women. 'All our wives are happy to be housewives and look after children,' says 30-year-old father of four Yakov Weisz quickly, with the faintest hint of disapproval at my question. Following an education that focuses on the practical skills they will need as wives and mothers, the women are devoted to raising children.

Although television and non-religious books are generally banned, it can be a struggle to avoid the influence of mainstream society. When parents take their children to the West End to buy clothes and shoes, they instruct their girls to avoid looking at the exposed flesh and sexualised advertising. Many just leave their boys at home. 'It is very hard,' Weisz admits. 'There is so much immorality on the streets. I go on public transport as little as I can.'

Esther Sterngold feels she's been lucky . Although she has eight children and is the main breadwinner, her husband Moshe is able to study full time. 'The ideal scenario, which everybody aims for, is to have a husband who sits and studies, to stay in the learning world. I chose that sort of life and, thank God, I've managed to help out,' she says.

In a room lined with religious books in the family home, Moshe explains a worldview in which theology and politics are inextricably linked. 'Religious people cannot accept the Zionist idea. They do not want their children to learn Zionist culture or to serve in the Zionist military. All Jewish rabbis, before the creation of the Zionist state, fought against it.'

As founder and director of the Interlink Foundation, which provides support for the Orthodox Jewish voluntary sector, Esther Sterngold is something of an expert in building the infrastructure to maintain the community's self-sufficiency. Outgoing and articulate, she is passionate about her work, which brings her into contact with many non-Jewish organisations. She shares her husband's anti-Zionist views and discusses the Middle East. But as a woman, she has no place in public life and so cannot be part of Neturei Karta. Our meeting only comes about, I suspect, because her husband wants her support when seeing a woman journalist.

As Moshe expounds the finer points of Zionist history, his wife listens with admiration, bursting out: 'That's where I know nothing. That's years and years of work. When I hear my husband, I'm fascinated.' I wonder whether she, too, wouldn't like the opportunity to study. 'Yes. I'd like to see the logical picture. But,' she laughs rather ruefully, 'I'm so busy!'

It's not easy being a messianic Jew catapulted into 21st-century activism. Yakov Konig, a father of 14 who was an electrician until health problems forced retirement, sighs when I first ring him. A small man with an earnest expression, he's torn between the desire for the quiet life befitting an Orthodox Jew and the need to speak out. But when he starts talking across his dining-room table, the words come tumbling out. 'We have to present to the world a case against the blackening of our name. The Zionists have stolen our name, the name of Israel, they have stolen our very character. We've been tarred by their acts of cruelty and murder and all they've done in the last 54 years. It's so frustrating.'

The dangers of speaking out were recently brought home to the group when one of them received a series of telephone death threats which are currently being investigated by Hackney police. The recipient doesn't think they came from the Orthodox community, but from 'Zionist militants - the hotheads'. He brushes aside the suggestion that it's a sign that Neturei Karta's outspokenness will set them irrevocably apart from the rest of their community. 'In two or three weeks it'll be back to normal,' he says. 'We'll go to the same weddings and functions as the rest of the community.'

Nonetheless, there are tensions. Until recently, the Middle East was a favourite topic of lunchtime conversation in Esther Sterngold's all-women office. 'The last one or two months, it's become a no-go area,' she says. 'We don't talk about it, at all.'

While much of the disagreement may come from supporters of Israel, some of the community is more worried about alliances with other faith groups. 'There is a lot of pain in the fact that many of our people do not realise the importance of what we are doing, and therefore we get stick from both sides,' says Konig. 'Our religion is passed down from generation to generation and direct contact with other religions is considered dangerous.'

The Neturei Karta are, as a minority within a minority, in the trickiest of positions. They have their own small canon of literature and history which tells of martyrs to the cause, such as Jacob de Haan, a Dutch journalist assassinated while organising talks against a planned Jewish state in Jerusalem in 1924 by the Zionist paramilitary force Haganah. Some even carry a mock-up, unofficial passport which, a statement inside explains, exists as 'a means of enabling a Jew to prove his identity lest he be included with the Zionists'.

This alternative identity complicates their central, repeated claim that they are no different from their fellow religious Jews. 'All Orthodox Jewish people believe that Zionism is evil,' says Konig. 'But not many of them are willing to come out into the open to say so. Most are passive and the rest are too frightened; they're not fighters.'

This fear is one explanation the Neturei Karta give for the vexed question of how many fellow Jews share their views. Numbers shift, they say, according to levels of courage and external pressure. Another explanation, yet more difficult to prove, is the assertion that pro-Israel religious Jewry is suffering from false consciousness - they are Neturei Karta but just don't realise. Beck the senior claims: 'If one asked the average Orthodox practising Jew, "Do we need a state?" most would say, "We don't." The problem is, since the state was founded, there are different ideas. On top of that, there are suicide bombs, innocent people are being killed - it does mix up the people so they can't think clearly.'

It's a moot point whether the out-of-timeness of the Neturei Karta has left them dangerously out of touch, or whether it's precisely what gives them a clear-sightedness that others have lost in the ferment of emotions stirred up by the Middle East. Whatever the case, the little band in London is keenly aware that in the current climate, the stakes are higher than ever. 'The name Jew is getting worse by the day,' says Weisz. 'I feel an obligation to stick up for the Torah's name.'

And for Hochhauser, recalling his big day out at the demo, it's worth it. 'Somebody came to me; he said for 39 years he had hated the Jews. And now, when he saw us, he felt he had to come and shake hands with us. There were tears in his eyes.'


Additional Resources

Judaism and zionism, a lecture by Rabbi Goldstein of the Neturei Karta (23 Dec 2001), addressing a Muslim audience in South London.
Neturei Karta at the Quds Day Rally, (Dec 9th 2001). Listen to Rabbi Goldstein address the crowds.
Orthodox Rabbis at the Justice for Palestine Rally, Listen to their statement being read out (18 May 2002), also see coverage of how an anti-zionist Rabbi was attacked by a zionist thug during a counter-zionist demo (6 May 2002).
Orthodox Rabbis at the UN World Conference Against Racism, Listen to a lecture on the Durban conference against racism and the contribution of the Orthodox Rabbis.
Neturei Karta, Visit the official website, lots of good information
Jews Not zionists, Another good site about religious Jewish opposition to zionism..